After the rollicking Girl Power of Bad Girl Creek, I was eagerly anticipating its promised sequel. Along Came Mary, however, is a horse of a different color. Without the buoyant spirit of four disparate women coming together for a common goal, this novel is much more troubling. The new characters who are added are not as engaging as the voices we no longer hear, and the end result falls short of the original.
In Bad Girl Creek, 38-year-old invalid Phoebe DeThomas inherited a flower farm from her Aunt Sadie, and developed a successful business with the help of three women who came to live with her. There was Nance, on the run from a disastrous long-term relationship; Ness, a beautiful black woman who was HIV positive; and Beryl, who had recently finished serving a prison term for killing her abusive husband. Each of them had important gifts and skills to contribute, and by the end they all had promising futures. But Along Came Mary finds the Bad Girls facing more challenges. Nance is planning a wedding to Phoebe’s brother and denying her growing eating disorder. Phoebe, whose fiancé was killed in a car accident on their wedding day, has been left grieving, angry - and pregnant.
Meanwhile, a prospective new Bad Girl is experiencing her own transition. Thirty-year old Mary Madigan lives a nomadic life filled with no-good men and dingy karaoke bars. She finds solace in her two loyal border collies and an almost eerily beautiful singing voice. Five years ago, her twin sister Margaret was one of the unfortunate victims of the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City, and since then Maddy hasn’t stayed in one place long enough to let grief catch up with her. Even before her twin’s death, Maddy was always in Margaret’s shadow, never as smart or as good, but she loved her desperately. When she catches a glimpse of a yellow Ryder truck somewhere in Nebraska, the sight brings on memories she can’t escape, so Maddy decides to leave her current loser of a lover and travel to the Okalahoma City memorial. That’s where she meets Rick Heinrich - none other than “Rotten Rick” who broke Bad Girl Nance’s heart. Rick knows he can be a jerk, but he’s not a cruel man, only a self-centered one (he likes to think of himself as a “scoundrel,” which is a nicer term than “asshole”). He has just lost his job as a music journalist, and he joins Maddy’s odyssey as he half-heartedly tries to write a novel. Their journey takes them through the Southwest and eventually on to California, where the Bad Girls are waiting.
Along Came Mary alternates first-person narratives from Phoebe, Beryl, Maddy and Rick, and frankly I missed the voices of Nance and Ness. We have the opportunity to keep close tabs on Nance as she prepares for her wedding (and possible nervous breakdown), but Ness is almost entirely absent, an irreplaceable loss. The two new voices are not adequate substitutes. Maddy is an interesting character, a toughened survivor who deserves better than what life has dished out so far. Rick, however, remains a jerk, no matter how much Mapson tries to get inside his head and let the reader know why he is so emotionally immature. His alleged redemption through his attempts to help Maddy doesn’t compensate for his basic cluelessness about how to treat a woman.
Loss and grief are major themes in this novel, giving it a much more somber tone that its predecessor. Phoebe is overcome with misery throughout most of the story, making her bitter and angry. Only at the end of the book does something positive come out of her loss, and it’s a long, hard road to reach that point. Her wallowing in grief is contrasted with Maddy’s denial; she avoids any mention of her sister’s name, and five years later still hasn’t grieved properly.
Only Beryl seems to have the inner strength that gave the first novel such power. She has moved to Alaska with her lover Earl, but has returned to the farm to help Phoebe cope. She’s full of wise advice for Phoebe and Maddy, but by the end of the book things are looking precarious for her as well.
The girls’ pets still figure prominently in the story, and Maddy’s collies Mentos and Slim Jim are entertaining in their earnest attempts to herd anything in sight. But the little snippets about flowers that gave BGC such charm are almost nonexistent, and with the farm already a big success there’s no single cause that everyone rallies around.
Along Came Mary will not make much sense if you haven’t already read Bad Girl Creek; it’s very much a transitional novel without much backstory provided to the reader. The final novel in the trilogy, tentatively entitled Goodbye Earl, will be released next year. I’m sure I’ll read it because I want to know what happens, but I don’t think anything will top the pleasant surprise of first meeting these singularly strong, funny and caring women.